Tough economy prompts increase in searches for top leaders

AUGUST 31, 2015

As South Africa and the world reel from the latest wave of economic upheavals, companies are looking towards new opportunities in an effort to ward off the worst impact of contracting markets.

And this trend is manifesting very clearly in the executive search sector, where companies are seeking to ensure they have the right leaders to guide them through the tough times, while also making the best of new growth opportunities, an expert says.

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of Jack Hammer, a global leader in executive search, says in spite of tanking commodity prices, the plummeting rand and other market woes, there has been no decrease in big business seeking to ensure they have the right teams in place at the top.

“In the executive search industry, we typically notice the first impact of looming big market changes, a weakening economy, or a rapid cycle of market chaos like we are currently experiencing, by virtue of hiring strategies at executive levels. With concerns being raised about another impending recession in certain sectors, in the past few weeks we have clearly been seeing signs of companies attempting to ensure their houses are absolutely weather-proofed and in order.

“In challenging times such as these, companies generally have two options: either tread water until things become calmer, by which time it might be too late to gather the momentum required to get going again, or find new opportunities for the organisation to grow. In August 2015, we are seeing more of the latter.”

Goodman-Bhyat says that this does not necessarily mean these companies are disregarding the markets.

“Companies are extremely cost-conscious, and may be looking at retrenchment options in non-productive divisions, or reconsidering investment into areas that are looking shaky. However, they are also simultaneously keeping their eye on new opportunities.

"Where they lack the resources to identify or chase these opportunities, they are now going to market to source the best available talent. Where they need to optimise productivity and enhance efficiencies, they will be targeting the right leaders to drive this,” she says.

“The leadership needs and behaviours from our corporate clients definitely change in challenging times.”

Goodman-Bhyat says that - more so in a challenging economy than ever - companies need to ensure they have the right people in key roles to navigate through tough times. They will therefore hold out for individuals who closely tick almost all the boxes, rather than compromise on someone who is good enough to fill a role, but not a ‘sure thing’.

“Furthermore, companies are also a lot more risk averse regarding new hires. They will frequently want to do a search of the market purely to confirm that an internal candidate is equal to or better than what is ‘out there’, taking into account the ‘hit the ground running variable’. This means that an internal candidate who is solid and capable, and will not need to scale up or navigate a new corporate landscape for several months before making an impact, will frequently be more attractive than an external hire, regardless of capability,” Goodman-Bhyat says.

She adds that a further demand is placed by companies seeking to exploit opportunities in markets with better growth outlooks, particularly in Africa.

“The rest of Africa remains a considerable market of opportunity for companies who see South Africa as having plateaued, or even in decline. Skills remain scarce throughout the continent, even more so than in SA, and we are seeing a high demand from companies who want to appoint senior teams in growth areas where potential local losses can be offset.”